Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson’s call for President Barack Obama to deliver what amounts to an urban Marshal Plan didn’t begin with her rant at the council table last week. It’s her constant mantra.
But if this duly elected official did her part to curb city government’s spending addiction there would be one less reason to make a desperate plea for another bailout to rescue the city from a certain date with insolvency.
“Our people in an overwhelming way supported the re-election of this president and there ought to be a quid pro quo and you ought to exercise leadership on that,” said the obviously socialistic-minded Watson.
“After the election of Jimmy Carter, the honorable Coleman Alexander Young, he went to Washington, D.C. He came home with some bacon,” she continued. “That’s what you do.”
Her point about Carter and Young is correct. But she’s dead wrong to think this discredited theory of urban revitalization comes anywhere close to solving the city’s deep-seated fiscal problems.
Mayor Young and President Carter did have a symbiotic relationship, which led to the dumping on all kinds of government goodies into the city.
For four years, Detroit feasted on what seemed to be a never-ending stream of federal dollars. Included in the alphabet soup of gifts were millions in Urban Development Action Grants (UDAG), Community Development Entitlement Grants, (CDEG), Model City and Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) programs.
Young embraced the largesse. But it pretty much ended when Jimmy Carter didn’t get reelected to a second term and Young called newly elected President Ronald Reagan “pruneface.” The decline of the city started anew.
A fresh stream of federal cash flowed into the city with the election of President Bill Clinton. In that era, Mayor Dennis Archer was the “golden boy” who fed at the federal trough. Clinton provided major dollars to hire more cops and create urban “Empowerment Zones” complete with bonding authority, tax and other incentives for residents and businesses.
Alas, government’s ability to intervene in the marketplace and correct its problems ultimately proved to be limited and ultimately futile. When the Clinton-era funds dried up, Detroit couldn’t afford to keep the cops they hired with the federal subsidy.
The “zone” concept couldn’t overcome other debilitating deficiencies that discouraged badly needed investment. In fact, little was done on the city-side to reduce crime and high income and property taxes that stymied Detroit’s competitiveness.
Instead of using the windfall to economize and right-size the city, political leaders shunned bold restructuring initiatives like eliminating programs and services the city could no longer afford. Competitively bidding those that are essential was taboo. In the end, Detroit’s history as a federal handout recipient did more to kill local initiative than stimulate growth and prosperity.
Today, Detroit finds itself poorly positioned to compete for jobs with the suburbs or foreign countries. Massive workforce reductions are needed, which will further slash already depleted services and accelerate the epidemic of abandonment from the city. Schools are deplorable. Crime is rampant.
Councilwoman Watson never understood that corporate and business leaders are owed a real commitment from government to apply fresh, market-oriented solutions to urban problems though a comprehensive and ambitious economic agenda. Neither Watson, her colleagues nor the mayor have come close to projecting themselves as aficionados of sound public policy or pragmatic management. So a new future for Detroit isn’t possible until unwise and ineffective political operators adopt less of a “business as usual” stance toward reckless spending. Another bailout won’t change that mindset.
There’s little chance that Watson and her colleagues will have an epiphany and press forward with contemporary self-correcting measures that address the city’s mounting debt.
To that end, President Obama hasn’t shown much talent for fiscal management and cutting budgets either. He and Detroit elected officials might benefit from a better understanding of the meaning of self-determination.